Universities still holding breath over funding white paper

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A polemical white paper on higher education reform is scheduled for imminent publication, with media reports from newspapers such as the The Guardian indicating the possibility of its release next month. The bill follows on from the Browne Report, published in October last year, which resulted in the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, instigated in November 2009 by Lord Browne of Madingley. The report tackled issues surrounding the implication of the planned rise in tuition fees and the social mobility that the government is keen to facilitate through access to Higher Education.

The new draft legislation was due to be released in March, but was delayed in order to allow the impact of universities’ tuition fee tariffs to be accounted for. Labour have already criticised the government for not accounting for the majority of universities charging the full £9,000 per year fee in its budgeting, with estimates for public spending being based on most institution charging around £7,500 per year. There are fears that with universities charging the full limit in order to avoid being discredited as a less reputable establishment, Higher Education funds will have to be cut elsewhere in order to facilitate higher student loans.

Conservative Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, has faced heavy criticism over his proposed changes to the Higher Education funding system, with the controversy surrounding the white paper following on from the chaos of the student protests that were sparked last autumn against planned rises in tuition fees from 2012.

David Cameron faced embarrassment earlier this month after Willetts proposed the possibility of creating extra university places for home students through privately-funded access. Currently, universities may create extra places independent from public funding for international students. Willetts’ proposal would mean the same flexibility also being granted for home students. Critics claimed that this would lead to an unfair system favouring the wealthy and disadvantaging the poorer population. Willetts was quick to dismiss these claims, stating that he did not intend the reform to allow individuals to fund their own university education, but rather be funded by businesses and charitable organisations.

Shadow Business Secretary, John Denham, said: “I think it is clear that the government still intends to create a two-tier system – one method of entry for the most able, another for those with access to private funds from one source or another.”

The Prime Minister was forced to step into the debate, saying: “There is no question of people being able to buy their way into university.” Cameron went on to claim that it was not Willetts’ intention to privilege wealthy students and discriminate against those less well-off. However, the proposal is set to feature in the white paper in some form, according to various news sources, including the BBC. Accusations of confusion and U-turns directed towards members of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is leading the reform process, has placed further strain on the already fractious coalition government.

Despite the furore, there have been statements of support for Willetts’ proposals, which he claims will increase the quality of Higher Education by creating a more competitive arena for universities. The Chief Executive of GuildHE, Andy Westwood, claimed that so-called “off-quota” university places could actually be “socially progressive”, providing the flexibility for less well-off students to study part-time or on an intensive or modular basis.

Issues of student finance and social mobility are highly contentious within the coalition, with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly opposed raising tuition fees in the run-up to the 2010 General Election, being accused by opposition parties and members of the public of abandoning their policies in favour of acquiescing to Conservative initiatives. With all the controversy surrounding the issue, there is a great deal of pressure on the government to deliver with the publication of its reform bill.

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